On a park bench in People’s Square one warm Shanghai afternoon, I relax and open a well-worn copy of Journey to the West. Suited-up office workers, families with eyes focused on their children, and fashionable young people with the latest cellphones all parade by. From the canopy of foliage above, the twitters of the park’s feathered friends waft down soft as rose petals.
Sometime around 1580, an obscure poet named Wu Cheng'en sat down to rewrite a 900-year-old Tang Dynasty chronicle of a historic trek. He called his version Journey to the West. It transforms the old account into an adventure-filled quest embellished with fantastic characters. The star is a super-powerful, headstrong monkey armed with a club he wields like Hercules. His sidekicks include a gluttonous warrior pig who can fly by his ears, an insecure man-eating river-sand monster disguised as a white horse, and a Buddhist monk.
Like pinballs, the travelers ricochet from danger to deathtrap. The troublesome, nearly unstoppable monkey even invades Heaven, where he has run-ins with the Jade Emperor and the supreme goddess of mercy and compassion, Guanyin. Not to mention their supporting cast of countless unnamed deities and immortals who fill the celestial palace.
Serenaded by bird songs and with Journey to the West on my mind, I nod off. Into my reverie slips an idea; among Heaven’s immortal throng, there must be some who represent the arts. Just then, a magpie startles me awake. When I look up, three men have joined me on the bench.
“So, brother, what brings you here?” one asks. “We are the Immortal Spirits of Art and Design of the East, North, and South of China. I am the Spirit of the East. Do you seek knowledge like the monk of old?”
Cups of fragrant flower tea mysteriously appear. More than a little surprised, I sip the tea and try to think of something to say. “In coin and medal design, it always puzzles me how to resolve the competition between aesthetic and commercial demands,” I finally reply.
The East Immortal smiles, “In my view, from a design aesthetic standpoint, it should be divided into two parts: one is the designer's own idea, which is personalized. The other is to cater to the market and have a popular aesthetic. These two aspects are combined to create the products we need.”
“Market demand is the determining factor in the design process. We consider that perspective and then offer thematic designs. Our role in (creating) market-oriented products is largely passive — we rely on their guidance to complete the tasks.”
The Immortal of the North then chimes in, “Popular aesthetics tends to favor commercial designs, whereas designer aesthetics tend to prioritize personalized designs, or the so-called artistic visions of creators. While balancing the needs of the product, we may encounter contradictions, sometimes even intense ones, in our coin and commemorative medal designs.”
“However, the designer's personal aesthetics often require compromise to adapt to these needs. After all, what we make is not a single piece of art, but a product or commodity that must meet the public's aesthetic needs. If we were only making a piece of art, we could express our thoughts by satisfying our own aesthetic needs, and that would be acceptable. But since we are making products or commodities, that approach is not suitable.”
I look at the Immortal of South China, who adds, “Actually, it's about two aspects. On one hand, if the product mainly highlights the designer's creativity and ideas, then I will prioritize my ideas. On the other hand, if it's a more commercialized design, I must find a balance. I will definitely pay close attention to the customer's needs and, based on their requirements, use my professional skills to make the product the best it can be, which is similar to writing a composition with an assigned subject.”
“Coins may have a more concise language, while paper money, during the design process, may have to consider many post-processing mechanical techniques, and it will have more details, namely, what it presents will be more detailed.”
“Once a coin design is completed, the engraving work is typically carried out by someone else. However, when designing paper money, the designer is responsible for the process from beginning to end.”
“But what do you think, Peter Anthony?” the South Immortal continues. “You are familiar with Chinese coins. How do you see the designing of Chinese coins nowadays?
“Well, from a technical aspect, the process has improved by light years compared to what was produced 30 or 40 years ago,” I answer. “From an artistic standpoint, there is still a special energy, I think that has continued. That is part of what makes Chinese coins and currency so interesting. As things evolve, you begin with one idea, and then you try another way, and then you try a third approach. Eventually, you find the best solution.”
“There is a great deal of thought, consideration, and even debate in the design process. This energy is a consistent feature of Chinese coins. Collectors and the public feel that even if they cannot always express their feeling in words. Where does this spring from?”
“In the Shanghai History Museum, I saw a display of beautiful ancient pottery, maybe 4,000 or 5,000 years old. It fascinates me to look for connections, to see how China’s past meets the China of today.”
The Immortal of the North picks up the thought, “First of all, China has such a long history and rich culture. As Chinese, we have grown up in this environment and been deeply influenced by this culture. Many cultural components are deeply ingrained in us. Hence, when we integrate traditional culture and Chinese cultural elements into our designs, some of them may be just natural, as these elements are engraved in our DNA.”
“On the other hand, we have also been exposed to a combination of Eastern and Western educational thoughts. Western educational concepts have had a significant impact on us. This is especially true in the field of art and design education, which actually originates from the West. What we received is not pure Chinese art and design education, so when we design, we use some Western techniques and skills and then re-integrate our Chinese elements before applying them to our designs.”
“The first step is to choose a theme, for example, a panda. The panda itself is a long-standing, iconic animal representative of China. We will choose to create a mild and temperate image for the panda. Although the panda can be a fierce animal, we never portray it as such. This is a characteristic of Chinese culture's subtlety. Therefore, in our products, you will only see particularly mild and beautiful aspects, which are the essence of Chinese traditional culture. We won't portray a fierce animal as fierce, but instead, make it particularly Chinese or with distinct Chinese cultural characteristics. When designing panda-themed works, we often incorporate positive implications, and these implications must be something that Chinese people like to see and hear.”
“When we compose the image and design its composition, however, we turn to use Western art and design techniques. In fact, the word ‘composition’ itself is Western, which is totally different from the Chinese composition and perspective methods. Chinese perspective is a scattered point, while the Western perspective is focal or parallel. In our design process, we often employ Western techniques while infusing our creations with Chinese thoughts, or say, aesthetic pursuits, resulting in a fusion of these influences.”
The Immortal of Southern Design takes a sip of tea and then clears his throat. “While based in the South, our designs may include fewer traditional elements, but that is not to say that they are nonexistent. In fact, even in the most modern designs, there are often Chinese traditional elements, such as the use of classical Chinese colors in color matching. For example, in terms of composition, we might draw elements from traditional Chinese painting, with large areas of white space for imagination.” “No matter how modern it is, in some aspects, it has absorbed Chinese traditional composition, colors, layout, and all aspects, but it is just applied in a more modern way.”
To this, the East Immortal smiles serenely and then comments, “My approach derives from a mix of traditional and modern cultural expression. From the perspective of sculpture or bronze medals, it might be a combination of both, an inheritance and an integration. The challenge is to express traditional forms through a modern lens.”
“Perhaps each individual brings their own unique perspective to life, modernity, and design aspects, resulting in a modernized interpretation of these elements. However, from an expressive and technical standpoint, one may inherit traditional techniques and methods and apply them in a transformative process through their own understanding and interpretation. The subject matter transformation is just a personal difference and preference.”
“Some people might always choose to follow traditional themes throughout their life, such as making Buddha statues. On the other hand, I also like animals. A modern understanding and interpretation of animals in design can make them more accessible and relatable to our current understanding.”
“For Buddha statues, I try to use modern techniques and methods to express the traditional charm, and these two aspects are not conflicting. What I transformed is the subject matter, which is unrelated to other aspects, such as form.”
“I would say artistic expression and understanding are highly subjective and, as a result, vary significantly from person to person. Due to the diversity of our work, studies, and life experiences, artistic expression is a transformation process that reflects these individual perspectives.”
“As individuals grow up physically and in thought, their artistic expression evolves and takes on new forms. Just like Picasso, when he was young, his paintings were very realistic, right? In his old age, his paintings became so abstract, right? That's purely an artistic expression, a personalized expression, right? This is a transformation process, and of course, it varies from person to person. Every designer or artist has his own growth process.”
“So, in terms of expression of forms, understanding things, and expressing subject matter, they are all done from different angles, and of course, there is no absolute conclusion,” the East Immortal concludes.
“Yes, certainly,” I agree. “By the way, I think Picasso’s approach to painting changed after he saw art from Africa. The Immortal of the East responds, “For everyone, in work and study, there may be some sudden inspirations. If you like traditional culture, you might be interested in Chinese Buddhist statues. After visiting all the Buddhist grottoes, you may have a new understanding or enlightenment.”
“Picasso might also have had this experience. After traveling in Africa, he saw African wood carvings. Inspired by them, he integrated their style into his own understanding; he transformed them by using oil painting, painting, and sculpture forms.”
“Yes, truly,” I nod. “Personally, I like to collect medals. I think they reflect their designer’s creativity so clearly. Medals really are art objects. That said, Chinese coins stand out for their vibrant designs. I always look forward to seeing the latest ones.”
“While on the subject of creativity, I am trying to figure out AI – artificial intelligence. It’s really on my mind because, right now, it is everywhere around us, and I'm not sure anybody fully understands where this will lead.”
The Southern Immortal offers, “I think AI is an unstoppable trend. Just like photography, there used to be a barrier to entry where you had to have an SLR camera, but now with an iPhone or a smartphone, anyone can take photos. AI, as it penetrates into our life, may make things more accessible, but the barrier to entry still exists. AI may aid you, but cannot help you achieve a top level.”
The East Immortal follows with, “I'm interested in anything, but when it comes to the era, electronic products, or artificial intelligence, I don't know much. However, I know that in our future lives and design, AI applications will become more and more widespread and increasingly intelligent. In our work, AI may be used more extensively. Now, whether it's online or in our shopping, I can feel that many products are not handmade anymore; they have become computer-made, digitized products. This is a significant breakthrough. For example, this jade in my hand used to be handmade, but now it is 3D carved by a computer.”
“Traditional handicrafts are now made using 3D computer carving, so AI applications will become more widespread in the future. Traditional products, handmade products, and many other products, just name it, will gradually be replaced.”
“That saddens me,” I reply.
“First of all,” the Immortal Designer of the North joins in, “AI will definitely increase productivity. In the past, coin designs were traditionally created using manual methods that required the carving of molds by hand. However, with the introduction of computers, the industry experienced a significant increase in production efficiency. The emergence of AI is set to represent a similar technological change, further enhancing efficiency.”
“But from a product perspective, AI will never be able to replace humans. It will always be an extension of human intelligence, helping us produce or manufacture products more quickly and exquisitely, or making products that better meet human needs. That's the purpose of technological evolution.”
On the one hand, in the pursuit of our goals and objectives, we continually develop, utilize, and innovate in order to create better products and services. On the other hand, in terms of coins and derivative products, I think AI will become a growth point for our product profits. In other words, it will expand our product types and generate more subcategories.”
“For example, if we have five existing product types, with the addition of AI, these types may exponentially diversify, enriching our product lines and types, and possibly attracting more people to like and own them. Moreover, improved production efficiency may mean a potential decrease in costs and product prices, allowing more people to enjoy our products' benefits. I think this technology can bring more blessings to humanity.”
“The impact on our coins, including our precious metal derivatives, will be like a historical leap. We will certainly be influenced by it. There was a fundamental change from handmade to computer. Now, we can ascend to another level, which is AI intelligence. Our products will also undergo a fundamental change, and there may be products that combine physical and virtual elements in the future. They may become a significant part of our lives, and I think this will be presented to us in the not-too-distant future.”
Suddenly, a child’s squeal wakes me. A man and woman hurry by as they pursue a toddler. When I turn back the bench is empty, the Immortals are gone, and my first thought is, “What extraordinary tea that was!”